Paul and Apocalyptic: Two Ages?


Apocalyptic thinking often divides history into various periods. Daniel’s outline of history as four coming kingdoms is one example, but there are others in apocalyptic literature. Perhaps the most common way for apocalyptic thinking to divide history is to describe this age as evil and the coming age of God’s kingdom. In the future this evil age come under judgment and be replaced with the way God intended it to be in the first place. Although it is possible an apocalyptic thinker may also took back to an ideal age in the past, the basic “this age and the age to come” is fundamental for apocalyptic thinking.

Paul uses this language in Galatians 1. At the beginning of the letter, Paul develops who Jesus Christ, or Jesus Messiah is. Jesus is the one who “gave himself for our sins” and in doing so, Jesus set us free from this “present evil age.” The wording is reminiscent of Isaiah 53:5, 12 in the Greek Old Testament. It is possible Paul describes Jesus in this way because it was already familiar to his readers. Jesus has already provided salvation through his work on the cross and those who are in Christ are already saved out of the present evil age.

This “evil age” is a common way of describing the present time in Paul’s letters as well as other Jewish first century writings. In the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, one important document calls the present age the “epoch of evil” (1QpHab 5:7) and the late-first century Jewish apocalypse 4 Ezra describes the present age as a time when Belial (Satan) is opposing God’s will (7:12). Like these other Jewish writers, Paul is looking forward to a future kingdom. But he also thinks believers in Christ are already participating in the blessings of that future age. Paul contends we have already been rescued from this evil age.

But it is equally obvious we do not live fully in the Kingdom of God yet. Although some streams of theology have summed up the Kingdom as the church, this does not seem to do justice to Paul’s overall theology. He really does look forward to the return of Jesus as a time when perishable will become imperishable and this old, evil age will finally be replaced by God’s rule.

For Paul, we live in a time “between the ages.” Christ’s death stands between the Old Covenant of the Law and the future establishment of the Kingdom of God. The book of Galatians is one of the earliest witnesses we have to what the first generation of Christians thought about the death of Jesus. It is clear from Acts the earliest followers of Jesus expected his return very soon (Acts 3:19-20). Paul believed some who are now alive may live until the return of the Lord (1 Thess 4:17).

This “between the ages” perspective drives much of Paul’s ethics as well. We are to live our lives motivated by the nearness of the return of the Lord. A passage like Romans 13:11-14 bases proper ethical conduct on a clear understanding of the “present time.” Since the night of this dark age is almost over, it is time to wake up and “clothe ourselves with Christ.”

Good apocalyptic thinking drives proper ethical conduct in Paul, not paranoid rambling about the Anti-Christ taking away our freedoms. Nor does Paul ever suggest we take our survival kits and guns into the hills and fight the government to the death. This evil age ought to drive us to more good, loving behavior toward those who hate.